Sound investment

‘It was nearly the final nail in the coffin,’ says Joe Barnett of the Outlook festival. He tells Dan Carrier how the impact of Brexit and moving from Croatia to deepest Cheshire has affected the entertainment

Thursday, 19th May — By Dan Carrier

Outlook festival__Sinai sound system 1

The Sinai South System perform at Outlook in Croatia. Photo Marko Edge

OF the many influences post-war Caribbean immigration in to the UK has had, one that endures is the concept of the sound system.

The idea of setting up a homemade rig of woofers and tweeters for a DJ to entertain people springs from lawn or yard dances in Jamaica and other Caribbean nations.

This form of musical entertainment – DJ playing tunes through bass-oriented speakers – is firmly part of London culture today, and to recognise this, Islington-based music promoters Outlook are bringing together some of the very best proponents at their new UK festival.

Joe Barnett is the director and has the envious task of putting together a programme. Previously, he and his team have managed the Outlook festival in Croatia – and now are bringing their project back home. “It is bigger than just musical genres. It is about how our society has been shaped by the Windrush generation,” he says. “It is about what sound systems have brought to our cultural and our communities.”

And while many people enjoy a sound system experience directly because of the sheer size and tone of bass-driven music, there is much more to it than that.
“It isn’t just about a set of powerful speakers. It is about coming together and listening to great music in a friendly environment that played a huge role in recent UK history and has massively influenced society today in numerous ways that are not always recognisable,” he says.

Joe got involved in music events while studying at Sussex University. “I fell in to it,” he explains. “I put on a night. I was very caught up and mesmerised by the Dub Step and Drum and Bass scenes.”

This event’s success saw Joe join forces with other promoters to establish Vagabond, which ran in London, Leeds and Brighton, and from there it was another step forward to organising their own, sound system-drenched festival.
“We met a promoter who had a site in Croatia and they were doing some cool stuff, running something called the Garden Festival,” says Joe.

It was 2005 when Outlook was born. “They invited English promoters to run events there and we saw what was happening,” he adds.

Dan Rodigan at Outlook Festival 2016. Photo Dan Medhurst


While Dub Step and Drum and Bass were early loves for Joe, he wanted the festival to have a broader offering.

“It wasn’t just the Dub Step scene – we had Giles Peterson and the Gentleman’s Dub Club perform. It was broad.”

This summer, for the first time since its creation, Outlook are taking over Cholmondeley Castle in Cheshire. It marks a culmination of nearly 20 years hard work. “It has been something we have talked about for a long time,” says Joe. “Outlook is known as a European festival with a worldwide audience. It is an international brand and the core of this is the music, which comes from an English scene and an English audience. There was always the idea if we could find the way, we’d bring it home.”


Mungo’s Hi-Fi sound system

Programming the event is always exciting, says Joe, and creating a mixture of genres linked to sound system culture is a major factor.

“We wanted to show respect to the genres that have influenced dub step, where music has come from,” he says, citing Channel One, Jah Shaka and Mungo’s Hi-Fi as sound systems with decades of performances behind them he has booked to play.

“Having heritage reggae artists on too teaches people coming in to the genres today. It shows where the influences have come from. It is about enjoying the idea of the shoulders these contemporary genres stand on,” he adds.

“It is about representing so many elements of the community. If we do not have people representing the scene from a number of angles, we are not doing it justice.”

Having created a Croatian festival, Joe and his team know plenty about logistical challenges.

“There is something beautiful about going to Croatia but also there are restrictions because of costs and travel,” he says. “When we started, the UK was in the EU and Croatia wasn’t. Now it is the other way round and we are back to square one.

“The Brexit debacle left firms like Outlook suffering a 20 per cent fall in Sterling’s value and massive uncertainty. It created a huge amount of pressure on us. We weathered the storm but it was very nearly the final nail in the coffin.”

Mala at Outlook Festival 2016. Photo Dan Medhurst

Leaving the EU created nothing but higher costs and extra work, and was then followed by the pandemic – a deadly blow to music promoters.

“The industry is in a difficult position, not just because of the last two years, and in terms of promoting events, but because when you have a break in society like we did, it has so many ramifications,” he adds.

“Issues include multiple businesses working in festival infrastructure haven’t updated what they hold for two years. Inflation, the cost of living, the war in Ukraine and fuel prices – have hit almost everything required to deliver a festival.”

And he doesn’t see government help heading over the hill to help out one of the UK’s biggest money earners and purveyors of soft power, namely the performing arts scene.

“I do not think the government at all recognises the impact – both culturally and economically – and there have been plenty of occasions they have shown this in policy terms and a lack of respect to cultural bodies,” says Joe.

These issues have been further compounded by the situations the audience finds themselves.
“Festivals face falling ticket sales as audiences incomes are also squeezed,” says Joe. “The cost of living crisis has an impact. Festivals are all about the people there. It is about building a community and therefore it has to be as accessible as possible, but we have seen must-have items in our budget go up by 30 per cent. That is something that needs to be addressed.”

Finding the new venue led to an interesting conversation between organisers and local people.
“The first complaint we had was there was not enough ska on the bill!” adds Joe.

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